Grad school isn’t the only way to deploy your degree after college. History is a way of thinking and working as much as it is a focus on the past — so even though you have not been “trained” for any job in particular, that’s exactly the point: your education is versatile and you can custom-fit it to whatever you end up doing. Or as the president of Reed College put it to the Wall Street Journal in 2016, "College shouldn't prepare you for your first job, but for the rest of your life."
This guide addresses the strengths of a history education, how those strengths match up to careers, and how history is actually a profitable major. The Department also hosts a History at Work Speaker Series for students to meet former majors and minors who continue to use historical thinking in their work.
Mindsets and Skill Sets
The first thing you need to do is to break the habit of seeing your major as something “interesting” but ultimately esoteric and useless. History is a mindset and a skill set that employers in many industries value. Learn to appreciate and explain this.
History teaches you that human experiences, values, and conceptions of the world change. And in order to figure out how and why other people lived and thought, you have to learn how to make sense of unfamiliar situations and perspectives. (These skills in a nutshell: curiosity, patience, flexibility, empathy.)
History teaches you that even a single society at a single moment in time is heterogeneous in significant ways. You have to learn to think about things from different angles — for example from the vantage points of class, gender, race, age, education, geography — in order to more fully capture their causes and effects. (These skills in a nutshell: precision, gauging the representativeness and relevance of data, identifying demographic trends and differences, recognizing different forms of power.)
History teaches you that texts and artifacts offer only a partial view of the societies that produced them and require careful interpretation. When you interpret primary sources you learn to investigate difficult and unfamiliar material, to ask what perspectives are highlighted or marginalized, to pinpoint implicit understandings that the evidence reveals unintentionally, and to acknowledge what uncertainties remain. (These skills in a nutshell: observation, skepticism, caution, persistence, subtlety, insightfulness.)
Historical research and analysis require a careful evaluation of primary sources but also a comprehensive consideration of modern scholarship. You learn how to process substantial quantities of information into a coherent set of ideas through a sustained argument, to document and defend your evidence, to assess the work of other scholars in order to build from it, and to distinguish between others’ interpretations and your own. (These skills in a nutshell: research, extensive reading, abstract and strategic thinking, organization, writing, sustaining an argument, generosity, transparency, meeting deadlines, and ideally foreign language comprehension.)
History seminars teach you to put many of these perspectives and skills to use on the spot, in the course of a discussion with other people. In the best discussions the class develops ideas together that are based on persuasive interpretations of the evidence at hand, and you learn to ask your own interesting questions and figure out ways to work out an answer. (These skills in a nutshell: listening, collaboration, focus, improvisation, speaking.)
Obviously this list can’t tell you all the ways you’ve learned to think and work. Treat it as a template for thinking about what else you’ve honed in the course of college. Other historians and history majors have done the same. Here’s a sample:
30 Reasons It’s Smart to Hire a History Student (a history major’s post-college perspective)
Recalling What We Do: Some Habits of Mind Historians Keep Hidden (a professor’s perspective)
Entering the Job Market with a BA in History (a career advisor's perspective)
Why Major in History? (perspectives of history majors at UT-Austin)
So take a cue from the 400 employers that the Association of American Colleges and Universities surveyed in 2015, and reflect on your capacities: 91% are less interested in majors per se and instead zero in on candidates who can "think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems," and 96% of them seek candidates who can "solve problems with people whose views are different than their own." (Note too that a strong majority of employers would be more likely to hire someone who had completed a senior "applied-learning" project — which is exactly what your 4990 thesis is.)
Some advocates of humanities majors say that one of the primary benefits of a liberal arts education is a lifetime of personal enrichment — meaning basically that exploring the world’s complexities with an analytical eye is supposed to be its own enduring reward. Sure it is. But that satisfaction shouldn’t be a consolation prize: it’s important to know that your degree is valuable to other people, too.
For a snapshot of the most common careers for history majors (and other majors), check out this chart of degrees and careers by Ben Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, which uses data generated by the American Community Survey in 2009-2010. Some of these fields you might expect, like education and law, and some you might not have predicted but they still make sense — like market research analysis and human resources. UGA’s Career Center has compiled a somewhat more specific range of possible jobs and employers of history majors, based in part on the preliminary data it has gathered through the history results of its Career Outcomes Survey (and being the good historian that you are, you will notice that these aren’t statistically significant because they only represent the most recent graduating class — and not all of them at that).
But keep in mind that these are common uses of a history degree; they aren’t necessarily the best outcomes for you, and they’re definitely not the only possible outcomes. Lots of history majors become lawyers or teachers in part because they’re obvious options: it’s easier to envision going into a career that you already know about rather than going for something you don’t. But there is a lot of challenging and interesting work in the world that you don’t yet know about yet, and you may be a great match for it. (See for example an anthropology grad student’s account of progressing from a random entry-level job into a series of better and better ones that increasingly drew on her anthropology training.)
That’s why it’s helpful to hear how other history majors found jobs that really suit them: their examples give you a clearer sense of the real range of careers that you can find and flourish in. The American Historical Association’s series What I Do has profiles of history-in-action through different kinds of work (most of which feature people with PhDs, but their career paths are still instructive), and its outline of Careers for Students of History and its series What to Do with a BA in History include some brief bios, too. The AHA is also publishing preliminary results of its ongoing survey of history BAs, which gives a sense of the discipline's many possible applications. And to see what UGA's own history majors are doing with their degrees, and how exactly history informs their work, check out the Department's profiles of undergraduate alumni and its History at Work Speaker Series.
The examples of other humanities majors also suggest how to follow your nose into a field that interests you and end up using your education all the same. Read Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up to see how philosophy informed his comedy — or watch Hannah Gadsby's 2018 Nanette, where she makes serious work of her art history degree as both a comic and a humanist. Caitlin Doughty explained to the New Yorker how medieval history helped her reimagine the art of funerary practice. Rick Bayless’ Authentic Mexican makes obvious how his bachelor’s in Spanish and his graduate work in anthropological linguistics brought him to regional Mexican cooking. Liz Pape discussed how her BA in art history got her interested in the social uses of clothing, which together with her talent for analysis and research helped build what became a multi-million dollar company. Even the brief bios that Business Insider gives of thirty successful humanities and social science majors show how these fields can lead to real applications after college.
Obviously you should also take advantage of UGA’s Career Center, including its career fairs, guides to the job search, résumé resources, and mock interviews. The New York Public Library also maintains a Job Search center, and many of its resources are accessible without an NYPL library card, like its curated list of employment websites and a bibliography of books about the job search. And the Harvard Business Review pointed out in 2017 that there is now a spate of books about the ways that humanistic thinking can (and already does) help power the tech and business worlds. (Would this truly be a history guide without any bibliographies?) After looking through these materials you should be able to do more strategic searches that will yield better results than you’d get just by googling “history jobs.” Treat the process like a serious research project: your sense of what’s out there — and what interests you — depends on your sources and the time you spend with them.
The Money Myth
It’s a common misconception that history majors, and humanities majors more generally, are more likely to be unemployed after college and that they will not make as much money as people who majored in other fields.
It’s true that your major does make a difference. In 2012 Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce reported (based, like Schmidt’s chart, on the 2009-2010 data of the American Community Survey) that unemployment rates varied significantly by major, and in the same year the U.S. Census Bureau warned (using the same data again) that your choice of major could make at least a million-dollar difference over the course of a lifetime.
But the prospects for history majors are more positive than most people think. According to a 2015 report of the Center on Education and the Workforce (which has a similar punchline to its 2012 report, updated with data from 2011-2012), history B.A.s who were 22-26 years old earned an average of $32,000 annually, and history B.A.s who were 35-56 years old earned an average of $62,000 a year. That’s comparable to the average salaries of all college graduates, both early on ($37,000) and later ($66,000) — whereas recent high school graduates’ earnings average $24,000 and experienced high school graduates’ earnings average $36,000. Zoom in further, and it’s also comparable to or better than the incomes of experienced graduates in fields that are frequently assumed to be more “practical,” like communications ($63,000/year), psychology ($53,000), and biology ($65,000). It’s slightly lower than what you find among, say, marketing majors (who earn $37,000 as recent graduates and $65,000 as experienced ones). And it’s significantly lower than engineering majors (electrical engineers for example start off making an average of $62,000 and move up to an average $103,000).
Based on the same data, 8.40% of 22-26-year-olds with a history major were unemployed in 2011-2012, as were 5.40% of 35-56-year-olds. If we size that up against the same majors again, history numbers are again comparable to communications (8.9% of recent grads were unemployed and 5.7% more experienced ones), better than psychology (9.3% recent, 6.3% experienced), and only slightly worse than biology (8% recent, 4.8% experienced). By contrast the rates are worse than they are for younger marketing grads (5.6% recent, 4.3% experienced) and electrical engineering (6.5% recent, 3.7% experienced).
You might also check out the salary data for majors and lifetime earnings over at PayScale. The company has administered over 54 million salary surveys (by its own count), and although it keeps the results themselves private in order to charge a fee to access them, its interactive charts still let you measure the macroperspective, so you can assess history against other majors. PayScale's data are even more promising that what the American Community Survey yielded: in 2017 the median average salary of history majors zero to five years after college was $42,000; for history majors working five to ten years after college $55,000; for history majors ten to twenty years out, $70,000; and for history majors out of college for more than twenty years, the median income was $84,000. Those numbers are comparable to what you could expect to earn over a lifetime with a bachelor's in business management, accounting, or biology.
The reason for the “money myth” of humanities degrees is that the data have been misinterpreted in several ways, and even the few figures above can be misleading — which probably won’t surprise anyone who’s used to dealing with the complex nature of primary sources. Here’s why:
- Most discussions in the media about these figures focus on the “recent graduate” category — college graduates between the ages of 22 and 26. This overlooks long-term trends, when history majors’ employment rates and salaries significantly improve.
That’s partly because the survey on which these data are based excludes one of the most popular careers for history majors: you can’t be a lawyer until you’re 26, so this career is poorly represented in the “recent graduate” group.
It’s also because humanities degrees are inherently flexible and enable career-switching: in 2012 the National Center for Education Statistics’ Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study found that humanities grads had the highest average number of jobs (2.6) within 3-4 years after college. And in 2011 the Center on Education and the Workforce numbered history among the majors that were most dispersed across different occupations: like physics and zoology, there isn’t a tight correlation between a history major and particular job.
The U.S. Census Bureau counts teaching as a “part-time” job, and since teaching is another popular career among history majors, their full-time employment rates look superficially lower than they should.
Most analyses of these data don’t consider other significant factors besides college major, and that distorts our understanding of why certain people make more money in the short and long run. When we consider other parameters it turns out that majors aren’t the main determinant. For example:
- Gender is just as likely to affect your income as your major is: as Ben Schmidt shows, nurses don’t make less than people in finance because of their degrees; they make less because most nurses are women. Likewise Libby Nelson reports that race will affect your income, too, so for example “the typical black electrical engineering major makes $22,000 less per year than the typical white electrical engineering major”; and fields that pay some of the highest salaries tend be overwhelmingly white and male. These are not encouraging conclusions but nevertheless they’re important ones. See the Humanities Indicators project for the gender distribution of bachelor’s degrees in the humanities and in history specifically, and the racial makeup of humanities B.A.s and history B.A.s.
- Race and type of college are also interrelated factors whose relationship to employment, as sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom points out, are overlooked and under-researched. We know, according to a 2013 report of the Center on Education and the Workforce, that persons of color are more likely than whites to attend “open-access” schools (colleges that accept at least 80% of the people who apply to them). We also know that persons of color are disproportionately enrolled in for-profit colleges, which typically end up costing more than not-for-profit schools, and yet studies of employment and salary outcomes rarely distinguish between types of degree-granting institutions. PayScale’s data on national salaries by school is a place to start.
- Geography matters, too: the likelihood that you will make more money than your parents depends on what part of the country you live in, which the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard demonstrated in 2014 on the basis of tax records from the IRS — and which formed the basis of the New York Times’ interactive chart on income mobility and its interactive comparison based on state counties. Of course geography aligns with other characteristics, and the most significant seem to be that areas where social mobility is the greatest also tend to have “(1) less residential segregation, (2) less income inequality, (3) better primary schools, (4) greater social capital, and (5) greater family stability.”
So for all these reasons, handle your post-college career like you handled history — as a sharp and subtle analyst who doesn’t take things for granted.